Cover image of "The Keeper of Lost Causes," an example of superb Scandinavian noir

You know about Scandinavian noir from Sweden (Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson) and Norway (Jo Nesbö). How about Denmark? If your memory’s long, perhaps you’re familiar with Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg, which came out of Denmark (and Greenland) more than twenty years ago. But Jussi Adler-Olsen’s six-book series of detective novels about Department Q of the Copenhagen police figure on the list of top Scandinavian detective fiction, too. It’s truly superb Scandinavian noir. Amazing, isn’t it, how much engaging crime fiction comes out of that little corner of the world? And there isn’t even all that much crime in the region!

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

First, the antihero

Even before he was wounded in a shootout that left one of his colleagues dead and the other a paraplegic, veteran homicide detective Carl Mørck had gained a reputation within the Copenhagen police as a thoroughly unpleasant person. He loses no opportunity to insult anyone and everyone near him. A charitable observer might remark that Carl had no patience for fools. Naturally, his coworkers didn’t see things that way, as they were reluctant to regard themselves as foolish. But now, months after the shootout, Carl is not only proving to be unpleasant but lazy as well Having lost all interest in his work or the world around him, he wants to do nothing more than sit or lie around and, truth be told, feel sorry for himself. He’s obviously on his way to an early retirement.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q #1) by Jussi Adler-Olsen ★★★★★

Next, the victim

Five years ago, Merete Lynggaard was a rising young Danish politician. A popular member of parliament and the widely quoted spokesperson for her party, she was widely viewed as a future prime minister. Then, suddenly, she disappeared. She was on her way to a holiday in Germany with her brain-damaged younger brother, Uffe, when she vanished unaccountably from the ferry taking them across the Baltic. Her disappearance has become the country’s most celebrated cold case.

Now, the antihero looks for the victim

This requires explanation. A bothersome member of parliament has been making noise about all the high-profile unsolved cases, complaining that the police are doing nothing to solve them. He proposes the creation of a special task force, Department Q, to take on that challenge. Carl’s boss sees this as an opportunity to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone: he can secure millions in new funding for the new task force but keep nearly all the money for his own purposes, sending Carl into the basement to head up a nonexistent department. He could care less that all Carl wants to do is to sit at his desk with his feet up and daydream. He’s happy to call the phantom detachment Department Q to humor the parliamentarian who proposed it.

This is Scandinavian noir

No reader can be surprised that things don’t stay in stasis for long. Carl learns of his boss’ subterfuge and extorts an assistant to clean the basement and make coffee for him. Thinking he will get even with Carl for blackmailing him, the head of homicide assigns a seemingly clueless Syrian refugee named Assad as the assistant. But it doesn’t take long before it’s clear that Assad is capable of much more than cleaning floors and making coffee. He turns out to be a gifted investigator in his own right. Gradually, perhaps because Assad shames him into it, Carl finds himself dragged back into investigative work. Together they choose the case of Merete Lynggaard from among the dozens of cold cases Carl was assigned. Soon, they’re hard on the trail of the missing politician.

Meanwhile, we learn that Merete is still alive against all predictions. In fact, she is at the mercy of a sadistic unknown captor who relishes her suffering in an isolation cell. Her experience is harrowing—and a squeamish reader will suffer along with her.

About the author

Jussi Adler-Olsen is a hugely accomplished author, scriptwriter, publisher, editor, and entrepreneur. He has written a long list of books, both fiction and nonfiction, and appears to have won just about every literary award open to Danish writers. He is best known outside Denmark as the author of the Department Q series. The Keeper of Lost Causes was the first in the series, of which there are now six books.

For more great reading

Go to Jussi-Adler Olsen’s Department Q thrillers for links to my reviews of the whole series.

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